Filipinos in Alaska: 1788-1958

Researched and written by Thelma Buchholdt

An Asian Alaskan Cultural Center History in Alaska Documentation Project, 1996

Ang hindi lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makararating sa parorounan.

(Knowing your past will provide you direction to the future.)

Tagalog Proverb

Introduction and statement of purpose

Don't you go, Oh don't you go to far Zamboanga

Where you may forget your darling far away.

... from a Filipino Folk Song

This report reveals the early history of Filipinos in Alaska, and Filipino life in Alaska before statehood. It focuses attention upon the recorded instances of contact between Filipinos and Alaska Native people, and upon the history and historicity of Filipino post-contact integration into Alaska's social and economic development for the period from 1788 to 1958.

The purpose of this report is to lay the foundation for a continuing effort to research and document Filipino history in Alaska, to teach Alaska's children about the Filipino discovery and development of Alaska, and to strengthen Filipino Alaskans' identity and sense of place, and public esteem.

The Philippines, a country in Southeast Asia, has been an important part of America's history since the Spanish ceded her to the United States under the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1898. Filipino immigration to the United States continues to be an important part of America's story. Yet, while historians in many states have written about Filipinos living in those states, in Alaska, the history of Filipinos and their contributions to the state's social and economic development have thus far been a neglected subject.

This report is meant to remedy this gap in the history books, and has been written for use in the development of history and social studies curricula in our schools and universities, and as an educational resource available to the people of Alaska.

Alaska's Filipino community is based upon the courage of those who did "go to Zamboanga," to make their way as strangers in a far away land.

Zamboanga is to the Philippines, perhaps, as Barrow is to Alaska. Barrow is farthest North. Zamboanga is farthest South. In the 18th century, Zamboanga, as it is today, was an important commercial port with its natural harbor and nearby mahogany timber forests. For centuries, Filipinos have gone to Zamboanga to seek opportunity as merchant seamen, or to settle in the surrounding forested frontier. Alaska is the "far Zamboanga" for over 8,000 Filipino Alaskans today who are the result of a tradition that can be traced back to 1788.

It appears that the first Filipinos to reach Alaska's shores came as merchant seamen seeking fur trade in the last quarter of the 18th century. The earliest record accounts for at least one unnamed Filipino seaman who, in 1788, arrived as a crew member on a merchant ship which bartered with Alaska Natives for sea otter furs.

Thus far, research of historical records reveals the name of four fur trading ships with Filipino crew members: the Iphigenia, the Eleanora, the Fair American, and the Gustavus III. The Filipinos on these ships known as "Manilla men," were reputed to be experienced, fierce and loyal seamen.

Later, Filipino seamen were aboard the Descubierta and the Atrevida, ships of the Spanish expedition seeking the Northwest Passage led by Alejandro Malaspina in 1791. The Filipinos on these Spanish ships were seasoned sailors, having worked on the Spanish galleons. The galleon trade fueled commerce between Manila and Acapulco for 250 years, starting from 1565 when the first galleon sailed from Cebu, Philippines.

How many Filipinos were on the ships bound to the Pacfic Northwest coast of America from the second half of the eighteenth century? It is hard to say, since nothing was written about Filipino crew members other than the occasional mention of one or a few in a captain's journal. And, even when something was written about a Filipino seaman, the captain's journal failed to mention given names. Nearly all the Filipino crew were referred to simply as "Manilla men." Of course, more might be known about these Filipino mariners had they themselves kept journals and diaries about their voyages, but perhaps they did not read or write. Or perhaps they did write about their voyages but their writings were not preserved in the archives and libraries, as were the captains' logs and journals.

Less than a century after the first Filipino contact in Alaska, American whaling ships brought Filipinos to the Alaskan Arctic. These Filipinos initiated contact with the Inupiat Eskimos. Some ships' records exist from which to glean the names of Filipino crew members aboard these whaling ships. However, the crew lists of American whaling ships did not always include a crew member's country of origin. It is difficult to identify the Filipinos on those ships because a crew member with a Spanish surname, but no identified country of origin, may or may not be Filipino.

Although Filipino whaling crew members may have over-wintered near Point Hope, Alaska, in an area occupied by foreign-speaking whaling crew, there is no record of a resident Filipino Alaskan community until the early 1900s when Filipino cannery workers, known by the Filipino idiom "Alaskeros," began to live permanently in Alaska.

Many of these new Alaskans were bachelors. Some met and married Tlingit, Tsimshian, Haida, Aleut or Eskimo women and raised families in Alaska. These cross-cultural marital unions created families that produced strong leaders of the Alaska Native land claims movement and Native corporations, particularly in Southeast Alaska.

In preparing this report, the author combed over thousands of records to identify Alaska's Filipino pioneers, yet much research and identification remains to be done. Research for this report was conducted at the Library of Congress and the National Archives in Washington, D.C., at the regional branches of the National Archives in San Bruno, California; in Seattle, Washington; and in Anchorage, Alaska; the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley; the New Bedford Free Public Library and the Old Dartmouth Historical Society's Whaling Museum, in New Bedford, Massachusetts; the National Pinoy Archives of the Filipino American National Historical Society in Seattle, Washington; the Baranov Museum in Kodiak, Alaska; the Rasmuson Library Archives at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks; the Alaska State Library and the State Archives in Juneau; the Library of the Anchorage Museum of History and Art; and at the Alaska Collection of the Z.J. Loussac Public Library in Anchorage.

In addition to the research conducted at the above institutions, some Filipino old timers, those who worked or migrated to Alaska before 1959, and children of old timers were interviewed for this project.

Information available for research includes crew lists of Spanish ships that explored Alaska before the Malaspina expedition, crew lists of earlier fur trading ships before the Iphigenia, passenger lists of vessels arriving from the Philippines, and U.S. Immigration and naturalization documents. The U.S. Census schedules and soundex to the year 1920 are open to the public. Personnel records of the Alaska Packers Association are available at the Alaska State Library in Juneau. Marriage licenses over fifty years old are also open to the public and available at the Alaska State Archives.

After their statutorily protected confidentiality periods expire, documents kept at either the National Archives or at the Alaska State Archives will be open to the general public and future researchers may find additional information to update this report. Information contained in a birth or adoption record is open to the public 100 years after the birth or adoption was filed with the state. The 1930 U.S. Census schedules and soundex will be open to the public in the year 2001.

There is much interesting information about Filipinos in Alaska waiting to be researched and written. Filipino Alaskans should write their family journals now and contribute to the history and strength of Alaska's Filipino community. Filipino Alaskans could leave behind documentation of their presence in Alaska for future historians and generations of Alaskans.

Also included in this report are a number of narratives describing or expressing the thoughts and contributions of the founders of some old Filipino Alaskan families. This type of documentation should be encouraged. The author hopes that research and documentation of the history of Alaska's Filipino community can continue, and that all of those who helped build Alaska can be identified and their stories recorded for posterity.

Thelma Buchholdt, Anchorage, Alaska: June 26, 1996

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